Between June 12 and 30, the company, which splits offices between Houston and New Orleans, retrieved four combination drilling/production topsides downed by Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina for an undisclosed client, and will soon head out again to recover four more for two other clients.
According to Bottom Feeder inventor and Versabar President Jon Khachaturian, plucking platforms from 250 feet of water is unprecedented.
"We're doing something that has never been done, which is picking these things up off the bottom," he says. "There have probably been some shallow-water removals, but never over 200 feet."
The success has been a pleasant surprise.
"I was hoping it would work as well as it did, but I could never have expected it would work as well as it did," Khachaturian says.
The Bottom Feeder operates without the help of divers, instead using one remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to attach hooks to the decks of the submerged platform. Saturation diving, necessary at that depth, keeps divers on the bottom for days at a time, which can get expensive.
The Bottom Feeder is made of two barges, each 255 feet in length, joined by a 130-foot truss with winches and cables.
"What we really needed was an offshore gantry," Khachaturian says. "Most cranes have a single hook. We needed to have multiple hooks."
Despite being able to lower the block underwater – something most offshore cranes can't do – the key to the Bottom Feeder, Khachaturian says, is its "hydraulically decoupled" barges, capable of moving independently of each other.
"If you tie these together rigidly, the same sea that knocked those rigs over will level you," he says.
Khachaturian founded Versabar in 1981 by piggybacking on his versatile spreader bar used to take end-caps off pipes. The company eventually grew to furnish custom rigging systems for "anything you'd ever lift," he says.
Although Versabar has helped build a New York City bridge, the company works predominantly with offshore clients.
Having registered 44 patents and completed about 30,000 jobs on six continents, Khachaturian came up with the idea for the Bottom Feeder after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked down 113 offshore platforms when they blew through in August and September 2005.
Each offshore drilling lease includes site clean-up specifications, called "plugging and abandoning," or "decommissioning," which involves plugging the well with concrete and removing any part of the superstructure not deemed safe for an artificial reef.
While there are variances in terms of what is acceptable for a reef, the government has never specifically outlined the procedure and responsibilities for removing a sunken platform.
"There's nothing in the lease that specifies what happens if it knocks over. You just clean it up," Khachaturian says. "The question is how much do we have to clean up."
Despite the murkiness surrounding wrecked rig removal, the Minerals Management Service – the branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior that regulates oil and gas drilling – seems in no hurry to clarify things.
"MMS has no plans to modify the regulations on platform decommissioning at this time," says Caryl Fagot, public affairs liaison for the MMS's Gulf of Mexico region.
To most drillers and operators, that would come as a surprise – several said they though new guidelines were currently being drafted. Regardless, Versabar's client – who preferred to remain anonymous – decided not to wait.
"Our customer had decided they didn't want to worry about it," Khachaturian says. "They thought if there was any way to get them off the bottom, let's get them off and be done with it."
|Versabar's Bottom Feeder apparatus recently lifted a sunken platform from 250 feet of water about 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.|
Khachaturian set to work sketching out designs and building models. Two weeks after he showed his first model, the client said if Versabar built it, they'd use it.
Gulf Marine Fabricators, an Aransas Pass-based subsidiary of Gulf Island Fabrication Inc. in Houma, La., began construction of the apparatus in November. By June, the Bottom Feeder had passed field tests and was ready for deployment. From conception to operation, the $30 million unit was completed in just 14 months.
"It was very aggressive," says Gulf Marine project manager John Schack. "We were running some areas, like our brace rack, 100 percent for three months. It was a very fast track."
During that time, Versabar's staff size doubled to 300.
The Bottom Feeder's four recoveries to date were each about 50 miles offshore, although exact locations were kept under wraps at the unnamed client's request.
After lifting the platforms from the bottom, they were loaded onto a barge and towed to Morgan City, La., and sold for scrap.
Doug Peter, a natural resource specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's artificial reefs program, says there are typically three options available to oil companies that want to dispose of abandoned rigs.
The first is to reef it in place, provided the structure and the location are suitable for a reef. The second is to tow the structure to a more desirable location for a reef. The third is to tow it to shore for scrap, which usually occurs when the structure is not complex enough to provide adequate shelter for marine life. The platforms, usually filthy with hydrocarbons, almost always go to shore.
"We've only taken two decks the entire length of our program," Peter says.
With a large rig, Peter says, a regular plug-and-abandon job can run between $1 million and $1.5 million. Reefing saves about half that, and the oil company, by law, must donate half of its savings to the program.
The cost of clearing a wrecked well, however, is substantially more – usually between $300,000 and $400,000 a day, according to Khachaturian.
"Most of the expenses have been to plug and abandon the well; to cut through all the twisted steel," he says.
"The costs have been huge because you need divers and all kinds of stuff," says Marshall Adkins, a director of research for Raymond James & Associates Inc. who follows offshore construction. "They've got to go in and untangle the spider web of steel under there, cut it up with divers and use barges to pull it all up."
While Versabar prefers to not associate Bottom Feeder's day rate with a hard number, Khachaturian says it usually runs about half of what the oil companies are spending per day on the site.
Khachaturian estimates that the client that hired him to raise the four platforms in June has spent about a quarter of a billion dollars to clear several dozen storm-damaged rigs in the last three years. While his service offers some shred of financial recovery, the topside decks usually only bring about $100,000 from the scrap yard, meaning there's not much financial incentive.
"It's not an economic decision," Khachaturian says. "It's contractual and environmental."
In August and September, the Bottom Feeder will again venture into waters between 200 and 300 feet deep and 50 or so miles offshore to recover four more platforms, all downed by Katrina and Rita, for two more clients. While the clients prefer to remain anonymous, the list of companies with multiple downed platforms consists mainly of the majors.
While this Bottom Feeder is capable of recoveries in up to 400 feet of water – "You put enough wire on it, you could go as deep as you wanted," Khachaturian says – there's another, larger version on the drawing board.
While rigs lost to much deeper waters – like Chevron's Typhoon in 2,100 feet, which was cleared of hazardous materials and dragged to an artificial reef site – will remain out of reach of his machine for now, Khachaturian, Versabar and the Bottom Feeder will remain busy for the short term.
"I won't say it was fun, because there was too much too fast," Khachaturian says, "but it was interesting."
© 2007 Houston Business Journal